- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 12, 2017

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - Kansas could sign a contract this fall with a private company to build a new prison to replace its oldest and largest state lockup, and it is limiting the search to companies that already have built multiple prisons, documents show.

The state Department of Corrections is telling potential bidders on the project, which could cost as much as $155 million, that the contract also would require them to maintain the proposed new prison in Lansing. The state also is asking for proposals under which a company initially would own and lease the prison to the cash-strapped state before the state would buy it outright.

Parts of the existing Lansing prison date to the 1860s, and corrections officials believe a new prison would be safer, easier to maintain and more efficient, able to operate with 43 percent fewer workers. But some legislators see the plan as a step toward privatizing the prison system, and two key lawmakers worried Wednesday that Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration is rushing the project.

Companies face a May 12 deadline to express an interest and provide their qualifications, according to a request posted online last week by the state Department of Administration. Proposals from qualified bidders are due July 21; a contract would be awarded within a month and in its final form by Sept. 29.

The request tells prospective bidders that the state could finance the new prison itself, but it also asks companies to submit proposals for lease-purchase agreements of 20, 30 and 40 years.

“We’re leaving the options open for whatever makes the most sense,” said Department of Corrections spokesman Todd Fertig.

Corrections Secretary Joe Norwood announced in February that the state was pursing the project. The plan is to mothball the oldest and most historic parts of the current prison and to demolish the rest, replacing it with a new 1,920-bed prison and a separate 512-bed minimum-security dormitory, for a total of 2,432 beds. The current prison holds up to 2,405 inmates.

The state is seeking proposals only from companies that previously have built at least three other prisons of similar size. The requirement is likely to limit bidding to a few companies.

“Building a correctional facility is different than building other large residential buildings like hotels or college dormitories,” Fertig said. “There are specific aspects that require particular expertise.”

The state House Appropriations Committee last month included a provision in a budget bill that would authorize either a lease-purchase agreement or up to $155 million in bonds for a new prison in Lansing. Lawmakers expect to debate the measure in May.

Rep. J.R. Claeys, a Salina Republican and chairman of an Appropriations subcommittee on public safety agencies, said he doesn’t believe that the Department of Corrections has explored all of its options.

For example, he said, it could expand its exiting maximum-security prison outside El Dorado and house inmates in a private prison just across the western border in Colorado. He also said building a new prison at a “green field” site might be less costly.

“There’s a serious trust issue between legislators and this administration,” Claeys said.

Sen. Laura Kelly, of Topeka, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said she believes Brownback’s goal is to “hurry up and get it done.” The term-limited governor must leave office by January 2019, and there has been speculation about him leaving earlier to take a job with President Donald Trump’s administration.

“It’s premature to do this,” she said of seeking proposals.

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna .


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